08/05/2009 11:00PM

California man takes NHC Tour lead

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By his own count, Mike Labriola has won a dozen handicapping tournaments in his life. And he estimates he's played in close to 300 contests in the past 25 years, especially with the proliferation of tourneys since the advent of the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship 11 years ago.

He's won on the lead. He's come from behind. There's probably not a situation he hasn't been in before.

However, even with all that experience, Labriola, a 57-year-old Veterans medical ratings specialist from Richmond, Calif., found himself sweating out his plays in the live-money Claiming Crown Ultimate Handicappers Open at Canterbury Park on July 25.

"Betting more than $1,600 on one race is not in my comfort zone," he said.

The Ultimate Handicappers Open requires a $1,000 entry fee that goes to the prize pool, plus another $1,000 live bankroll. The contest used the seven Claiming Crown races that day and the Lady Canterbury Breeders' Cup. Players had to make wagers on at least six of the eight races, using the win, place, show, exacta, trifecta, and superfecta pools. The twist is that they were required to risk at least half of that bankroll on each play. That means that everyone had to bet at least $500 on their first contest play; if they lost $500, they would then have to bet at least $250 on the next race. If they won their first race and had built their bankroll to, let's say, $2,000, they would then have to bet at least $1,000 on their next play, and so on.

Labriola was leading the tournament heading into the final race, the Lady Canterbury, and said he put $250 to win on 4-1 shot Happiness Is and $1,000 to place on the favored Euphony - along with more than $400 in other plays. When his top two choices finished one-two, he had built his initial bankroll to $3,865 to top the other 35 entries and claim the $25,000 guaranteed first-place prize.

"It's like in the Olympics when they say a downhill skier is going to win the slalom," he said. "I felt like I'm not supposed to win this kind of tournament, but I'm certainly glad I did."

Heading into that weekend, Labriola was in fourth place on the NHC Tour, the year-long competition that awards points for performance (3,000 for any first-place finish and a graduated scale based on the number of entries) in NHC-qualifying tournament and awards $100,000 to the winner of the tour who is also eligible for a $2 million bonus if they go on to win NHC XI at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas on Jan. 29-30, 2010. Even though he had been consistently on the leaderboards all year long with five finishes that earned him Tour points, he had yet to earn a seat in the finals, the only person in the top 18 to hold that unwanted distinction. But his Canterbury victory not only earned his NHC berth, but also put him atop the Tour leaderboard with 6,554 points.

Ricky Zimmer, 31, of New York City, held on for second with a bankroll of $3,064 and picked up $7,200 in prize money. Terry Ousky of New Prague, Minn., was a distant third with a bankroll of $1,108 but won $3,600 plus an NHC berth, including round-trip airfare to Las Vegas and hotel accommodations. Gary Wigell of Willow Springs, Ill., was fourth at $1,066 and picked up $2,160 in prize money, but he also lucked out as he took the third NHC berth since Zimmer had already qualified.

Labriola said he handicaps mostly with the Form, but like former NHC Tour leader Joe Corvi, he also reads between the lines for trainer intent. He said the key to his victory (besides winning all four photo finishes that he was involved in - "Those who say that luck doesn't play a part in these tournaments is fooling themselves," he said) was getting off to a good start by hitting a $100 exacta in the first race, the Claiming Crown Iron Horse, and the fact he was able to get ahead of Zimmer heading into the last race after tabbing Antrim County to win the Claiming Crown Jewel at 4-1.

"It's a really big difference to be in the lead rather than chasing someone in any tournament, but especially this one," Labriola said. "I might have still won since I would have probably played the cold exacta [with Happiness Is and Euphony] but with the lead I was able to play a little more conservatively and keep myself in good position to qualify even if I didn't win the tournament."

Labriola concedes that he might have a harder time holding onto the NHC Tour lead from Zimmer, who is currently in fourth place with 4,675 points but is also faring well in the Del Mar Dime-a-Day tournament at Xpressbet.com and the TwinSpires.com Leaderboard contest.

"Zimmer would have been in the lead if he had beaten me at Canterbury, but he could add something like 4,000 points in those other contests, so it really behooves me to play more tournaments," said Labriola, who is considering the Fairplex contests in September as well as Aqueduct on Nov. 14-15 and a return to Canterbury during the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 6-7.

* Other upcoming NHC qualifiers include this weekend's tournaments at Suffolk, Oaklawn, the sold-out event at NHCqualify.com, and a pre-qualifier at Louisiana Downs for their finale that awards NHC seats on Oct. 3. Next weekend's lone tourney is another sold-out event at NHCqualify.com, with Canterbury giving away another two NHC seats on Aug. 22-23. For the full list and previews with the rules and formats, go to http://drf.com/nhc/2009/qualifiers.html